Hesiod Harangues His Lazy Brother

Happy New Year to all my readers. Stats from WordPress tell me that in 2018 there were 32,000 visitors to my website and they took a look at various pages on almost 50,000 occasions. Phew. It seems a lot to me. Many thanks.
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But with Christmas now over – my local park has a stack of Christmas trees the size of several London buses waiting to be shredded – with resolutions having been left unmade or already in pieces, I suspect I’m not the only one to be suffering a horrible sense of deja vue as the great Brexit debate and debacle has started up again. You thought it was safe to go back into the water? You thought you’d heard the last of the Irish Back Stop? It seems not. I’m as tempted as many to shriek ‘Oh get on with it!’ but what is ‘on’ and what is ‘it’?
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Actually, I have a genuine fear that the depth of national disillusion with the process and with conventional politicians makes this country more vulnerable to even more coarsened debate and extremism of various kinds, all promising to solve problems at a stroke. But really we know that’s pie in the sky. Right? Hesiod, of Ancient Greece, would agree. His Works and Days sounds very familiar. It is about conflict in a family, the problematic (perhaps intractable) nature of the world and the sense of a sequential decline in the fortunes of a society – all of which he counterbalances with advice, particularly about the importance of work – of keeping on keeping on.

To be honest, for many years, I’ve only known Works and Days by name. The title always attracted me with its Antaeus-like focus on groundedness, labour, the need to start from where ever we are now; it’s rejection of flighty idealism that quickly shades into the unconsidered fundamentalism. We need to work – nothing is given on a plate. And work needs to be sustained (through days) to be effective. Boring? Only if untrue and this is as true as anything can be.

I first came across the title of Hesiod’s poem in T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’:

 

There will be time, there will be time

To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet;

There will be time to murder and create,

And time for all the works and days of hands

That lift and drop a question on your plate;

 

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My old student’s guide to Eliot (by B.C. Southam, published by Faber) told me the allusion was to the 8th century BC writer Hesiod – to a poem which “gives an account of the primitive conditions in the country, together with maxims and practical instructions adapted to the peasant’s life”. Last year, Penguin Classics published a new translation of the poem by A. E. Stallings. It’s a lively and very readable version, though her decision to convert Hesiod’s dactylic hexameters into iambic pentameter couplets makes the ancient poem sound too English and 18th century for me. Another older prose translation by H. G. Evelyn-White is freely available here. 

hesiod-smDid you know Hesiod probably pre-dates Homer? Hesiod is aware of the siege of Troy but he makes no reference to Homer’s Iliad. He’s usually placed before Homer in lists of the first poets. The other striking aspect of Works and Days is that (unlike Homer) he is not harking back to already lost eras and heroic actions. Hesiod talks about his own, contemporary workaday world, offering advice to his brother because they seem to be in a dispute with each other. Hesiod’ anti-heroic focus is an antidote to the Gods, the top brass and military heroes of Homer. Most of us live – and prefer to live – in Hesiod’s not Homer’s world.

Hesiod also talks about himself – his long poem has a lyric and personal quality to it. We hear that he grew up in the unremarkable town of Askra, in Boeotia. He disparagingly refers to it as “bad in winter, sultry in summer, and good at no time” (tr. Evelyn-White). In fact, his family were recent economic migrants from Aeolian Kyme in Asia Minor across the Aegean.  Hesiod’s father made the journey: “[he] used to sail on shipboard because he lacked sufficient livelihood. And one day he came to this very place crossing over a great stretch of sea; he left Aeolian Cyme and fled, not from riches and substance, but from wretched poverty” (tr. Evelyn-White). As Stallings points out, “Hesiod’s is not a static, stay-at-home sort of world, but one of opening horizons, widespread trade, far-flung Greek outposts with freedom of movement, cultural festivals [. . .] and social mobility.”

512pxannbrl._sx316_bo1,204,203,200_He seems to have been a poet-farmer who makes sure we are aware that he has already won a literary competition at a funeral games on the island of Euboea. His prize-winning piece may well have been his earlier Theogony, a cosmological work describing the origins and genealogy of the gods. But Works and Days presents him as something of a magpie writer rather than a poet with a neatly conceived architectonic design. The poem mashes together myth, allegory and personal asides, as well as more philosophical passages, theology, natural description, proverbial advice and an almanac or calendar based on phenology (the study of periodic plant and animal life cycle events and how these are influenced by seasonal variations in the climate).

The occasion of the poem is also very personal. Hesiod has a brother – Perses – and they seem to be in dispute (perhaps as a result of their intrepid and entrepreneurial father’s death and the inheritance of the estate). Stallings has this: “Already we’ve divvied up our lots, but you / Keep laying hold of more than is your due”. It is this inclination to give advice to his (younger?) brother that controls much of the text. The name ‘Perses’ is unusual and may mean something like ‘waster’ or ‘wastrel’ and the brother seems to be trying to take more than he is due and the motivation for this (according to Hesiod) is a mile-wide streak of laziness. Perses wants his fortune on a plate rather than having to work for it. His big brother intends to give him some “plain truths to steer him[self] by” (tr. Stallings).

By way of correcting his brother’s indolence, Hesiod firstly explains there are two types of strife. One of these is the kind of Brexit bickering (and potentially far worse) that we are all too familiar with: “One brings forth discord, nurtures evil war: / Wicked, there’s nothing mortals love her for” (tr. Stallings). But the other is a more benign sense of competitiveness based on envy: this sense of strife “spurs a man who otherwise would shirk, / Shiftless and lazy, to put his hands to work”. Wow! That’s telling your brother like it is. Is this being listened to? Hesiod makes sure: “Perses, take this to heart, lest Strife, whose quirk / Is mischief-making, draw your mind from work” (tr. Stallings).

pandora2There are further reasons to set to work in the very nature of the cosmos and the human world. Hesiod tells the Pandora story here. Zeus causes the creation of a female figure, Pandora, as a way of avenging Prometheus’ pro-humankind actions (stealing fire from the gods, for example). Her name suggests she is a concoction or committee-created figure from contributions from all the Olympian Gods. She is given a jar which she opens: “ere this the tribes of men lived on earth remote and free from ills and hard toil and heavy sickness [. . .] But the woman took off the great lid of the jar with her hands and scattered all these and her thought caused sorrow and mischief to men” (tr. Evelyn-White). Hesiod’s locating of the root of human sorrow in the actions of a woman echoes the Christian story of the loss of Paradise and it is one of the reasons why Hesiod has been accused of misogyny, though as Stallings suggests, he’s not any more complimentary about the males of the human race.

Plagued by the ills of Pandora’s jar (only Hope is said to get lodged in the rim of the jar), Perses is then given a longer lecture on the decline of the human condition in Hesiod’s portrayal of the five ages of man. Here is the classic description of the Golden Age of man when we imagine we once lived “like gods [. . .] with spirits free from care; / And grim old age never encroached” (tr. Stallings). The ages of Silver, Bronze and (present-day) Iron are described. Between the latter two, Hesiod locates a brief Heroic age (the age of Thebes, Oedipus and the Trojan war). But despite this diversion, Works and Days makes it plain to Perses that the age he lives in is unpleasantly harsh and demands work work work to survive: “For now truly is a race of iron, and men never rest from labour and sorrow by day, and from perishing by night; and the gods shall lay sore trouble upon them. [. . .] The father will not agree with his children, nor the children with their father, nor guest with his host, nor comrade with comrade; nor will brother be dear to brother” (tr. Evelyn-White).

An obscure natural symbolic passage follows (a “fable” Hesiod calls it) in which a hawk has seized a song bird and mocks its struggles and shrieks: “Miserable thing, why do you cry out? One far stronger than you now holds you fast, and you must go wherever I take you, songstress as you are. And if I please I will make my meal of you, or let you go. He is a fool who tries to withstand the stronger” (tr. Evelyn-White). It’s tempting to see the songbird as the poet savaged by philistine powers though, in the Perses context, perhaps the songbird is a lazy good-for-nothing who is being shaken up and challenged by the world of necessity and work. A bit later Hesiod suggests another interpretation: that the natural world is red in tooth and claw, unlike human society which is governed by “law and right” (tr. Stallings) and so Perses ought to be obedient to Zeus’ powers out of gratitude for that. It’s interesting to think this of this as the first passage in Western Literature open to a variety of critical interpretations.

imagesIt’s certainly the lazy, self-serving, arrogant younger brother who forms the focus of the rest of the poem: “So Perses, you be heedful of what’s right . . . So Perses, mull these matters in your mind . . . Fool Perses, what I say’s for your own good” (tr. Stallings). It’s true that his name gradually fades from the text in the final 500 lines but the torrent of imperatives, offering advice and guidance on a range of practical issues, often sounds like haranguing from a concerned, perhaps slightly pissed off, brother. Much of this material is phenological – when to sow crops, when to harvest, when to shear your sheep. In winter, don’t hang around the blacksmith’s forge where other wasters gather to chat and pass the time. It’s safe to put to sea when the new fig leaves are the size of crow’s feet.

s-l300These are the passages that, around 29BC, inspired Virgil to his own farmer’s manual, the Georgics. Hesiod ends his poem in a rather perfunctory manner, roughly saying he who follows this good advice will become “blessed and rich”. But given Pandora’s jar and the Iron Age we live in, even this seems a mite optimistic. And of course, Perses never gets the chance to speak for himself. But I guess the tensions between his brother’s call for social and religious conformity and Perses’ individualistic disobedience to the demands of the gods and the sense of what is best for a society have gone on to form the basis of the continuing Western literary canon. And does any of this help with Brexit? I conclude (largely with Hesiod) the bleeding obvious: it’s complicated – solutions must be negotiated, don’t hope for some golden age because in a fallen, less-than-ideal, complex society it’s better for the future to be decided in the glacier-slow committee rooms of a plurality of voices than in the stark divisions and dramas of the battlefield. Work hard – have patience – don’t buy into fairy tales of a recoverable golden age.

Making Sense of Shelley’s ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ #2

I hope you have read my earlier post on this subject because here comes my commentary on the second half of Shelley’s The Mask of Anarchy. It’s the poem he wrote in response to the so-called Peterloo Massacre on 16 August 1819 and one that Richard Holmes and Paul Foot have called “the greatest poem of political protest ever written in English”. I was sent back to the poem after having watched Mike Leigh’s recent film Peterloo – which I would recommend to those interested in the politics of the early 19th century as much as the politics of today. The political climate at the time (as Leigh’s film so vividly demonstrates) was increasingly repressive in regard to any speech or publication in favour of Reform and because of fears of prosecution the poem only saw the light of day after the Reform Bill had been passed in 1832.

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Earth Speaks: on the Nature of Slavery (ll. 147-212)

So, Earth now speaks the imperative injunctions that many people will recognise. She first addresses the men of England as rightful and eventual “heirs of Glory” and nurslings “of one mighty Mother” which must be a reference to herself. Then, in what sounds like a call to battle, she cries:

 

Rise like Lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number,

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you —

Ye are many — they are few.

 

Though the nobility of lions is proverbial, so is their ferocity and here again it’s hard not to hear a call to arms as well as a shucking off of political chains that have imprisoned the Rousseauistic noble savage.

220px-Frankenstein_1818_edition_title_pageEarth continues by diagnosing the state of slavery into which England has fallen. This – and the following passage with its more positive analysis of what Freedom means to working people – makes for powerful, relevant, realistic reading in contrast to Shelley’s hard-to-pin-down mechanisms of political change. Slavery is to have to work and be paid only enough to live for another day’s work. It is to work not for oneself but for “tyrants”. It is to see family suffering and dying, to go hungry while the rich man surfeits his dogs. It is to suffer the “forgery” of paper money, to have no control over one’s own destiny. It is – when driven to the point of protest – a more direct reference to events in Manchester – “to see the Tyrant’s crew / Ride over your wives and you”.

The remaining stanzas of this part of the poem contrast the plight of English working people to that of animals both wild and domesticated: the animals are better off. But lines 192-195 are especially interesting. In the face of such slavery, the narrator says, it is likely that the desire for vengeance will arise:

 

Then it is to feel revenge

Fiercely thirsting to exchange

Blood for blood – and wrong for wrong –

 

But such a use of force, when a degree of power has been achieved, resulting in further bloodshed, is here explicitly rejected: “Do not thus when ye are strong”. This theme of not answering violence with violence is developed much more clearly later and it’s difficult to square this with the earlier images in the poem of Hope “ankle-deep in blood”.

 

Earth Speaks: On the Nature of Freedom

Now earth’s imagined voice sets about answering more positively, indeed in downright terms, her own question: “What art thou Freedom?” It is not an abstraction, “A shadow . . . / A superstition . . . a name”. Rather it is the provision of bread on the table, of clothes, of fire. As Anarchy was really the law of the rich, so Freedom assumes a strong legal system to prevent exploitation of the poor by the rich. Freedom is therefore justice available to the poor as well as the rich, to protect both “high and low”. Freedom is also wisdom – this must be partly the kind of free thinking (l. 125) generated by the Shape conjured by Hope and certainly (as always for Shelley) it means a thoroughly sceptical take on the teachings of the Christian church. Freedom is also peace – Shelley regarded the war on post-Revolutionary France in 1793 as a war against Freedom.

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Rory Kinnear plays ‘Orator’ Henry Hunt in Mike Leigh’s film

Freedom is also love – the examples given here suggesting a narrower definition than earlier in the poem. But love is accorded a Christ-like comparison in that some of “the rich” abandon their wealth to follow him and the cause of Freedom, indeed they turn their “wealth to arms” to combat the iniquitous influence of “wealth, and war, and fraud”. The paradox of taking up arms against war itself again perhaps highlights confusion in Shelley’s thinking though the kind of rich man he must have in mind here is Orator Henry Hunt (brilliantly played by Rory Kinnear in Leigh’s film) whose commitment to the cause of Reform was genuine (if a little self-regarding).

This passage ends less effectively with something of a shopping-list of abstract qualities which also comprise the nature of Freedom: Science, Poetry, Thought, Spirit, Patience and Gentleness”. Shelley himself may sense the dropped poetical pressure as the earth here sweeps aside the risky cheapness of such words in favour of actions: “let deeds, not words, express / Thine exceeding loveliness”.

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Earth Speaks: Making a Call to a Great Assembly

In this section Shelley puts aside any ambiguity as to the nature of the action required to achieve political change. Through earth’s voice he demands more occasions like the St Peter’s Field gathering.

 

Let a great Assembly be

Of the fearless and the free

On some spot of English ground

Where the plains stretch wide around.

 

People must assemble from all “corners” of the nation including palaces of the rich where “some few feel such compassion / For those who groan, and toil, and wail / As must make their brethren pale”. The purpose of the assembly will be (as at Peterloo) to declare and demand the freedom of the people. These words will be “measured” and it is they that will serve as weapons (swords and shields). Here, Shelley’s belief in passive resistance is quite explicit in contrast to earlier in the poem. The narrator anticipates the establishment’s potentially violent response to such assemblies. But the repeated phrase “Let the . . .” drives home the point of passive resistance:

 

Let the tyrants pour around

With a quick and startling sound,

Like the loosening of a sea,

Troops of armed emblazonry.

 

Let the charged artillery drive

Till the dead air seems alive

With the clash of clanging wheels,

And the tramp of horses’ heels.

 

Let the fixèd bayonet

Gleam with sharp desire to wet

Its bright point in English blood

Looking keen as one for food.

 

Let the horsemen’s scimitars

Wheel and flash, like sphereless stars

Thirsting to eclipse their burning

In a sea of death and mourning.

Peterloo (1)

 

Earth Speaks: on the Need for and Efficacy of Passive Resistance

Safe, if unhappy, in Italy it might have seemed easy for Shelley to have been recommending this course. But he does so, imaging the passively resisting working people of England as “a forest close and mute, / With folded arms and looks which are / Weapons of unvanquished war”. Such a non-militaristic “phalanx” will remain “undismayed”, he argues, and eventually victorious for three reasons. One is that the “old laws of England” will offer them some protection. These laws are personified as wise men, now old but “Children of a wiser day” from an imagined period of Rousseauistic natural justice and freedom. But their protection is by no means strong – indeed it seems pretty flimsy. Shelley still envisages Peterloo style violence from the powers that currently rule England. But this must still to be met with passive defiance:

 

And if then the tyrants dare

Let them ride among you there,

Slash, and stab, and maim, and hew,–

What they like, that let them do.

 

With folded arms and steady eyes,

And little fear, and less surprise,

Look upon them as they slay

Till their rage has died away.

 

The fading of such aggression is probably linked to the second reason for the cause of Liberty’s ultimate victory. This is hardly stronger than the first: it is that the perpetrators of violence against the people will be shamed and ashamed of their actions. The blood they shed will reappear as shameful “hot blushes on their cheek”. Women will cut them dead in the street. And true soldiers will turn from them towards the people, “those who would be free”.

8.ts-11-1056-St-Peters-Field-Map-720x556The third reason Shelley gives – via the voice of the earth – also offers only equivocal, indeed very uncomfortable, hope. Offering little or no consolation to the victims and their relations – though a point proven true through many centuries – such massacres by repressive forces will prove an inspiration to those who come after them: “that slaughter to the Nation / Shall steam up like inspiration”. Using another of his images for revolutionary fervour, this steam will eventually result in a volcanic explosion, “heard afar”. Once more in this poem, these reverberations are translated into words to mark “Oppression’s thundered doom”, stirring the people in their on-going fight for justice and liberty. Shelley concludes with the actual words he imagines being uttered – and we have heard them before:

 

Rise like Lions after slumber

In unvanquishable number–

Shake your chains to earth like dew

Which in sleep had fallen on you–

Ye are many — they are few.

 

At which point the poem ends, still with the imagined voice of the earth speaking, repeating herself and the impression is of some circularity in the argument though this is really one of Shelley’s core beliefs: the fight for freedom and justice is never once and for all. The enemy will re-group so the cause of the people requires a continued alertness and watchfulness as well as the offer of resistance (passive for the most part, but perhaps with occasions of violence).

 

Making Sense of Shelley’s ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ #1

Having recently seen Mike Leigh’s powerful rendering of the events leading up to and including the so-called Peterloo Massacre on 16 August 1819, I re-read the poem Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote as a direct and angry response to those events, a poem Richard Holmes and Paul Foot have called “the greatest poem of political protest ever written in English”. In my twenties, I spent several years writing a PhD thesis on Shelley’s work – more on his ideas about language than a conventional lit. crit. of the poems – so it’s a curious pleasure coming back to this poem after all these years. And perhaps it does not seem in need of much explanation, written as it was so self-consciously to reach as wide an audience as possible to achieve its political impact. Yet its driving ballad-like form hardly gives the reader time to reflect and there are areas of obscurity within it – apparently real uncertainty on Shelley’s part. Of course, the political climate at the time (as Leigh’s film so vividly demonstrates) was increasingly repressive in regard to any speech or publication in favour of Reform. Even the radical Leigh Hunt – to whom Shelley sent the poem from his exile in Italy – refused to risk publication. The poem eventually saw the light of day only after the Reform Bill had been passed in 1832.

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A Voice from Exile (ll. 1-4)

The whole poem is notable for the multiple distances Shelley maintains from the actual events of August 1819 (there is no poetic reportage of any kind, though he had read several newspaper accounts), in his own remote position (he had fled England in 1818, never to return) and in the way in which the poem comments on political realities (through the filters of ballad form and caricature and the sophisticated layering of voices). The opening quatrain briskly deals with the geographical distance, though with something of the air of a fairy tale.

 

As I lay asleep in Italy

There came a voice from over the Sea,

And with great power it forth led me

To walk in the visions of Poesy.

 

The AAAA rhymes here announce the poem with a series of thumps like an overture to wake his listeners and perhaps also himself from his guilt-ridden sleep, so far distant from the causes of political reform and revolution that he had long supported in England. The “visions” of poetry immediately give license to the strange encounters that follow.

 

The Triumphal Parade of Anarchy (ll. 5-37)

The kind of gothic caricature that dominates the following stanzas has often been linked to the style of political cartoons by Hogarth and Gillray. But Shelley’s adolescent love of the gothic genre is well known and the resulting mix is all his own. The reader (accompanying the narrator’s “walk”) is thrown into a parade of characters who precede the climactic appearance of the personification of Anarchy himself.
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This is the “triumph of Anarchy” (l. 57) in the sense used by the Romans as a victorious parade through city streets. The narrator meets three main figures – Murder, Fraud and Hypocrisy. Reversing the usual method of personification, each abstract figure wears a mask in the guise of a contemporary politician – the Foreign Secretary, Castlereagh, the Lord Chancellor, Eldon and the Home Secretary, Sidmouth. The satirical effect of these masks is driven home by the figures’ actions. Castlereagh feeds human hearts to the dogs that follow him, Eldon sheds tears that turn into mill-stones and children have “their brains knocked out by them” and Sidmouth, clothed equivocally by both Bible and “night”, rides by on a crocodile (more false tears, geddit?).

Shelley glancingly refers to “many more Destructions” traipsing along in this “masquerade”, and they are all “disguised, even to the eyes, / Like Bishops, lawyers, peers, or spies”. The enemies of the people are therefore boldly named and it’s clear that the poem’s title contains a pun on mask/masque, alluding to the paper-thin disguises that the abstractions of corruption and injustice wear as well as the arrogant self-regarding performance of the triumph or parade they are taking part in. The climax of this parade is the approaching, apocalyptic figure of Anarchy himself:

 

Last came Anarchy: he rode

On a white horse, splashed with blood;

He was pale even to the lips,

Like Death in the Apocalypse.

 

And he wore a kingly crown;

And in his grasp a sceptre shone;

On his brow this mark I saw–

‘I AM GOD, AND KING, AND LAW!’

 

Anarchy here means a state of lawlessness in which the rich and powerful are freely able to control all religious, state and legal power. Their laws preserve their own freedom to exploit. We’ll see a bit later that Shelley had a concept of the “old laws of England” (l. 335) that he believed had been overridden but that once had served to protect the lives of ordinary people.

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Contemporary Image of Peterloo

England Under Anarchy’s Rule (ll. 38-85)

Shelley’s poem broadcasts and accelerates the trope of the parade (“With a pace stately and fast”) to show the appalling results of this rule of the rich and powerful across the whole country. There are echoes here of the charges into the crowd at St Peter’s Field in Manchester:

 

And a mighty troop around,

With their trampling shook the ground,

Waving each a bloody sword,

For the service of their Lord.

 

Their Lord here is Anarchy himself whose pageant is now seen to be passing through England, “Drunk as with intoxication / Of the wine of desolation”. It lays waste to everything, tearing up and trampling down, eventually arriving in London. Ordinary citizens feel terror and panic while the supporters of Anarchy flock to him, repeating the slogan and self-announcement written across his brow. Those who flock to his side are lawyers and priests and:

 

The hired murderers, who did sing

`Thou art God, and Law, and King.

 

We have waited, weak and lone

For thy coming, Mighty One!

Our purses are empty, our swords are cold,

Give us glory, and blood, and gold.’

 

Anarchy bows in response to this obeisance with a false and aristocratic grace (“as if his education / Had cost ten millions to the nation”) and recognises the bases of his power are secure in Palaces and quickly to be seized in the Bank (of England) and the Tower (of London), after which he anticipates meeting with a compliant, “pensioned Parliament” to further confirm the rule of Anarchy in the England of 1819.

 

Hope and the Mysterious Shape (ll. 86-125)

_Paul Foot_ _Red Shelley_But as Shelley’s sentence crosses the next stanza break – ie. without any clear pause – the seemingly unstoppable parade of bloodshed, inequality, injustice and hypocrisy is strangely interrupted by a counter personification. A crazed-looking young woman (“a maniac maid”) runs out declaring that her name is Hope, though the narrator says “she looked more like Despair”. The perception here is interesting as even Shelley’s narrator has been so infected by the toxic atmosphere spread by Anarchy that the girl (who is soon to bring about a challenge to Anarchy) looks to be insane and more resembles the absence of hope than otherwise. This is one of Shelley’s core political beliefs and had already appeared in the closing lines of Prometheus Unbound. There, Demogorgon urges optimism in the long term conflict with abusive power: “to hope, till Hope creates / From its own wreck the thing it contemplates”. The movement for Reform will – it seems – have to come close to despair, or its own wreck, before the powers of Anarchy are likely to be defeated.

Hope’s father is Time, whose other children – these are the previous occasions when the cause of liberty and reform had been strong – are covered in the “dust of death”. So Time has brought forth a new opportunity though the actions of the young woman called Hope are surprising. Less Joan-like, more Christ-like she simply lies down before the trampling hooves of the triumph of Anarchy. But moments before she too is about to be trampled into dust:

 

[ . . . ] between her and her foes

A mist, a light, an image rose,

Small at first, and weak, and frail

Like the vapour of a vale

 

220px-Masque42This mist – later called a “Shape” – is one of the mysteries of the poem’s politics. Hope provokes its appearance. At first weak, it gathers in strength. Shelley compares it to clouds that gather “Like tower-crowned giants striding fast, / And glare with lightnings as they fly, /And speak in thunder to the sky”. In the next few stanzas it becomes more soldierly, “arrayed in mail”, compared to the scales of a snake (for Shelley the snake was usually an image of just rebellion not of evil), yet it is also winged. It wears a helmet with the image of the planet Venus on it. It moves softly and swiftly – a sensed but almost unseen presence. And rather than any military action or campaign of civil disobedience, this Shape, conjured by Hope, creates thinking:

 

As flowers beneath May’s footstep waken,

As stars from Night’s loose hair are shaken,

As waves arise when loud winds call,

Thoughts sprung where’er that step did fall.

 

The Shape has variously been interpreted as liberty, England, the people, revolution, nature, intellectual illumination. But I think the image of Venus suggests that the Shape is Love which, in Shelley’s ‘A Defence of Poetry’, is synonymous with the Imagination, the expression of which is Poetry. Poetry here is a cultural and perceptual shift (artists and writers are merely one aspect of its manifestation). At its heart, is the rejection of reason which perceives and depends on differences and the embrace of a mode of perception that favours similitude, including the similitude between all people and classes.

 

The Death of Anarchy (ll. 126-146)

How exactly Love, so broadly defined, brings about the dramatic consequences detailed in the next few stanzas is unclear. There seems to be evidence of a battle as Hope is suddenly seen walking calmly, though “ankle-deep in blood”, and Anarchy himself is reduced to “dead earth upon the earth”. In the light of the bloodshed at Peterloo, such actual conflict and resulting casualties are hardly surprising but the use of force by those seeking political reform seems to contradict Shelley’s later pronouncements in this poem. The only alternative is that the blood she wades through is that spilt by the powers associated with Anarchy.

rousseauYet in the calm aftermath of these events, there comes a sense of renovation, a “sense awakening and yet tender / Was heard and felt” and, most importantly, there are further words. This time the speaker is unclear though it is “As if” the earth itself, the mother of English men and women, feeling such bloodshed on her brow, translates this spilt blood into a powerful, irresistible language, “an accent unwithstood”. Shelley repeats “As if” once more, confirming the mystery of this voice, a voice which proceeds now to speak the whole of the remainder of the poem. For Shelley, Poetry in his broad sense is “vitally metaphorical” and the earth’s imagined speeches convey a sense that the cause of liberty is in accordance with the truly understood (surely Rousseauistic) nature of creation.

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Lorca’s Gypsy Ballad ‘Reyerta’ – a new translation

This week, at the Omnibus Theatre on Clapham Common, I was invited to deliver a brief, personal talk about Lorca’s poetry, particularly from the perspective of translating it. I have always found his poems difficult to work on – beyond a superficial level – though, as what follows suggests, I hope I have made some headway with it over the years. There are plenty of very poor translations around. I’m posting two blogs on this and including two of my own translations, the first, unpublished as yet, the second appeared  a while back in a small magazine. I’ve left my talk pretty much as . . . My translation of ‘Reyerta’ can be found at the end of the posting. I will post on the even more astonishing poem, ‘Romancero sonambulo’, next week.

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My personal story with Lorca maybe begins even before I’d read him. When I did come to read him – in a Penguin Modern Poets collection with (quote) plain prose translations – I didn’t get it. Later – as I often calculatingly do with a poet I don’t get – I tried to translate a few poems. To begin with, I didn’t get it then either.

Actually, my problems are genuinely surprising, in retrospect, as I’d long before this responded powerfully to something which I can now see had a strong Lorca quality to it. Let’s go back to the early 1980s. Imagine the beard, the much longer hair. The ignorance . . . A friend of mine loved his Irish folk music. He told me to listen to a song sung by Christy Moore. I say a song – a ballad really.

The song’s voice (a young man) tells us he went to a wood, he cut a branch of hazel, went fishing with it and caught a trout. What drove him was the fire in his head. The scene is vividly conveyed, neat turns of phrase like the white moths and moth-like stars and, as he lights a fire, the trout turns into a girl who calls to him but runs off.

Then the youth’s narrative jumps – the kind of moment that really does take the top of your head off. The voice concludes:

Though I am old with wandering
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips and take her hands;
And walk among long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.

download (1)I really didn’t know it at the time, but the song’s words are, of course, by W.B.  Yeats. It is his poem ‘The Song of Wandering Aengus’, from The Wind Among the Reeds (1899).

But I knew well enough that I found it moving – the yearning of the narrative, the devastating presentation of time passing, the strange images and most of all the mystery that spread itself over the whole like endlessly suggestive moonlight.

II

And so eventually, in Lorca too, I began to understand three big things – his poetry’s sense of generative mystery, the strange unexpectedness of his images and the boldness – the jump cuts – of his narrative development.

I’m focusing on these things tonight and what better place to start than a lecture he gave. Lorca typically (both self-deprecating and boldly idiosyncratic) calls it rather a talk about something no one has taught him – a lecture about the collection of poems called Gypsy Ballads. He published this best-selling book in 1930 and here he is speaking in October 1935. Of course, within the year he would have been murdered, his body dumped somewhere never to be found.

But in these lecture comments, we catch the man very much alive, I think, plus the poet’s love of outlandish metaphors. He says that lectures, in the traditional sense, tend to “fill the audience’s eyes with the pinpoints where Morpheus hangs his irresistible anemones”. For those of you already nodding off, he means in such talks we often fall asleep. Or at least, the speaker inadvertently fills the hall with “yawns too big for even the mouth of an alligator”.

hqdefaultI have now translated a number of Lorca’s poems and one of the great difficulties is to carry over such metaphorical leaps into English where they risk sounding very silly indeed. Fair enough, the alligator is, on the face of it, obvious enough: its gaping jaws give a good jolt of comic hyperbole to his image. But it’s still surprising in the context of a be-suited, bespectacled lecture hall in Spain. There is an exoticism there on the verge of surrealism and is characteristic of Lorca’s images. This search for novelty in image is clear when he argues later that a real poet must “shoot his arrows at living metaphors and not at the contrived and false ones which surround him”.

The Morpheus image does something else which is typical. Lorca takes up a creaking old mythic figure and with his sustained and vividly specific imagination, a vigorous verb, plus the kind of adjective on which he always liked to turn the volume up to 11, he brings the god of sleep and dreams to modern life: “the pinpoints where Morpheus hangs his irresistible anemones”. This sort of thing really is at the heart of Lorca’s project to take up traditional forms and stories and invest them with a modern vitality. One of his fellow students in his brief time at Columbia University reported that for Lorca, “new metaphors were the core and mainstay of any new poetry [. . .] Lorca’s central idea in writing was to employ phrases which had never been used before [. . .] an attempt to place together two things which had always been considered as belonging to two different worlds, and in that fusion and shock to give them both a new reality”.

This is the root of his belief that by means of poetry “a man more rapidly approaches the cutting edge that the philosopher and the mathematician turn away from in silence”. Never a proper, card-carrying surrealist, we can see why his work was working along that same grain. The well-honed, well-trodden, conventional, empirical/logical grooves of the philosopher or mathematician need a down-right shake up and poetic images easily seize the liberty to do this.

III

The Gypsy Ballad called ‘Reyerta’ or ‘The Quarrel’ or ‘Fight’ shows a lot of this for me. Lorca’s own comments on the poem suggest his interest in the way groups attack each other for unlikely reasons – a glance, a rose, a love affair centuries old, a man feeling a bug on his cheek. It opens:

Halfway down the gulley,

knives of Albacete,

beautiful with enemy blood

glinting like fish.

Like fish? A surprising image – but perhaps the silver and red (of fish fins; of steel and blood) makes this a vivid visual opening to the poem. But the surprise holds my attention; I can’t dismiss the slipperiness of the fish, the literal and metaphorical slipperiness of knives in a fight, perhaps the speed of movement of fish/fighters.

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The images of the next quatrain are vividly expressive but hard to be literal about:

In the crown of an olive,

two old women mourn.

The bull of the brawl

heaves itself up walls.

The women weep but to see them apparently perched in a tree top explains less and reveals more. So – they are far from the quarrel, putting distance between themselves and the ruckus, and where better than an olive tree, symbol of rootedness, domesticity perhaps, a long rural history, the bark’s wrinkles echoing their old weeping faces. Then the quarrel as an utterly non-literal, aggressive bull might seem an obvious image but again Lorca fixes our attention and conjures an independent life for it – as in a bullfighting ring – crashing into walls, even beginning to climb them.

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Mysterious black angels float through this poem at various moments. They are partly obvious, ominous, harbingers, though not of salvation but doom. Again, Lorca commits to them, commits details to them which tend to deepen the mystery of their significance: they are “bringing / meltwater, handkerchiefs. / Angels with wings as wide / as these Albacete knives” and, at the conclusion of the poem, they are seen “wheeling / in the air to the west. / Angels with trailing braids / and with hearts of oil”. With hearts of oil? Golden, greasy, liquid, melting, fast-beating, lacking healthy blood, anointing the earth, the good stuff spilling everywhere? Its meaning is a mystery and I suspect one Lorca would not venture to explain himself.

images oilJust one last detail from this great poem. Juan Antonio de Montilla is killed in the fight and – in one of Lorca’s characteristic jump cut edits (more of that in a minute) suddenly (it seems) the “judge and Civil Guard / come through the olive groves”. Somebody – a participant, one of the old women? – gives them an account of events in the form of exactly one of Lorca’s startling metaphors. This may have been a quarrel over a card game, or a girl, like so many others, but Lorca dizzyingly elevates it into an historical, even epic context:

Just as they always do:

four Romans have died

and five Carthaginians.

Here is my translation in full – the original Spanish follows:

.

Fight

Halfway down the gulley

knives of Albacete,

beautiful with enemy blood

glinting like fish.

a harsh playing-card light,

silhouettes on sour green,

the infuriated horsemen.

In the crown of an olive,

two old women mourn.

The bull of the brawl

heaves itself up walls.

And black angels bringing

meltwater, handkerchiefs.

Angels with wings as wide

as these Albacete knives.

Juan Antonio Montilla

rolling dead down a slope,

his body full of irises,

pomegranate on his brow.

He rides a cross of fire now

down the road to death.

*

The judge and Civil Guard

come through olive groves.

Slithering blood moans

a serpent’s mute song.

Masters! Civil Guardsmen!

Just as they always do:

four Romans have died

as have five Carthaginians

*

Evening crazed with figs

and hot rumours falling

faint on the wounded

thighs of the horsemen.

And black angels wheeling

in the air to the west.

Angels with trailing braids

and with hearts of oil.

 

Reyerta

En la mitad del barranco
las navajas de Albacete,
bellas de sangre contraria,
relucen como los peces.
Una dura luz de naipe
recorta en el agrio verde,
caballos enfurecidos
y perfiles de jinetes.
En la copa de un olivo
lloran dos viejas mujeres.
El toro de la reyerta
se sube por las paredes.
Ángeles negros traían
pañuelos y agua de nieve.
Ángeles con grandes alas
de navajas de Albacete.
Juan Antonio el de Montilla
rueda muerto la pendiente,
su cuerpo lleno de lirios
y una granada en las sienes.
Ahora monta cruz de fuego,
carretera de la muerte.

*

El juez, con guardia civil,
por los olivares viene.
Sangre resbalada gime
muda canción de serpiente.
Señores guardias civiles:
aquí pasó lo de siempre.
Han muerto cuatro romanos
y cinco cartagineses.

*

La tarde loca de higueras
y de rumores calientes
cae desmayada en los muslos
heridos de los jinetes.
Y ángeles negros volaban
por el aire del poniente.
Ángeles de largas trenzas
y corazones de aceite.

Tearing Up Grass: on Holderlin’s Life and Madness

Hesperus Press are just about to publish Will Stone’s eminently readable and wonderfully grounded translation of a contemporary account of Friedrich Holderlin’s madness. This is a long essay by Wilhelm Waiblinger, written in Rome during the winter of 1827/8. It’s an astonishing and very moving document for those interested in German Romantic and Modern poetry or in early accounts of mental illness or – as I am aware is my own case – for those who will instantly recognise, in these brilliant and detailed observations, some of the behavioural elements of what we now loosely refer to as dementia.

Holderlinturm
Holderlinturm

The essay first appeared in 1831, ironically only a year after its author’s death, though still a dozen years before its subject’s demise. Stone’s excellent introduction tells us that Waiblinger was an up-and-coming poet of the 1820s, “a rebel, a wayward fellow and a liberal maverick”. He studied at the same Protestant seminary (the ‘Tubinger Stift’) where Holderlin had studied from 1788 with Schelling and Hegel (imagine that team on University Challenge). But by 1806, the older poet had been confined to his tower in Tubingen (the ‘Holderlinturm’) because considered incurably mad. Waiblinger began visiting him in the summer of 1822. For four years, he saw Holderlin close-up, walking with him, trying to talk with him and enduring some pretty wild-sounding piano playing too.

41+WrUaV5pL._SX320_BO1,204,203,200_Waiblinger was a real Holderlin fan. The older poet’s novel, Hyperion, had appeared in 1822 (I review a recent translation of it here) and the younger man found it “saturated with spirit: a fervent fully glowing soul swells there” He was swept away: “Holderlin shakes me to the core. I find in him an eternally rich form of sustenance”. The mad poet in his tower was not often amenable to being visited, but Waiblinger, for some reason, proved an exception: “This lunatic, sitting at the window [. . .] is far closer to me”, the young man wrote, “than the thousands out there who are said to be sane”. Stone makes it clear that Waiblinger not only admired Hyperion but voiced the need for Holderlin’s other poetry to be re-published. Gradually, having fallen into obscurity, “his special hymnic style, fusing Greek myth and Romantic mysticism” eventually started to attract new admirers including Nietzsche, Schumann, Brahms, Rilke, Hesse, Trakl, Benjamin and Celan.

Initially, Waiblinger seems to have intended to document: “It is not my place to offer some profound psychological insight, but rather to limit the quest to simple observation, a modest character sketch”. Filling in Holderlin’s earlier years he notes the uniqueness of his work in his “enthusiasm for Greek antiquity” which “left [its] mark on the tonality of his own creations” and led to a sense “of discontentment with the land of his birth”. This kind of sentiment dominates Hyperion and Waiblinger (sounding a bit prissily patriotic here) finds it elicits in him “a certain repugnance”. Waiblinger also reminds us of Holderlin’s doomed affair with the already-married Susette Gontard (the model for the Diotima figure in the poems and Hyperion). He sees the termination of the affair as the main contributory factor in Holderlin’s decline: “The coddled youth, lulled by the sweet intoxication of this love entanglement, was suddenly pitched back into bitter reality”. From here on, Holderlin was to carry “a fracture in his heart”, a wound barely transformed in Hyperion which Waiblinger reads as documenting “an unnatural struggle against destiny, a wounded mawkishness, a black melancholy and an ill-fated perverseness [that] cleaves a path into madness”.

Wilhelm_Waiblinger
Wilhelm Waiblinger

No doubt the end of the affair did deeply affect Holderlin, but Waiblinger’s drawing a direct line from it to the ‘Holderlinturm’ is probably a bit simplistic. Sheltered from the “bitter reality” outside the tower, Holderlin continued to write letters in prose and verse. Given the period, it’s not surprising to hear Waiblinger describe the mockery of locals who caught Holderlin out walking – and good to hear that the old poet responded with mud and stones thrown at his attackers. Yet his behaviour was often like that of a small child: “When he leaves the house, they have to remind him in advance to wash and groom himself, for his hands are habitually soiled from spending half the day tearing up grass”. This tearing up grass seems to have been a common occupation as does, while out walking, flapping his handkerchief against fence posts. All the while, “he talks incessantly to himself, questioning and responding, sometimes yes sometimes no, and often both at the same time”.

One of Holderlin’s other occupations in his madness was re-reading his own Hyperion. He would read aloud, exclaiming “Wonderful, wonderful!” then go on, pausing only to remark, “You see gracious sir, a comma!” In true Romantic style, Waiblinger notices that the mad poet is more calm and more lucid in the open air: “he spoke to himself less [. . .] I was convinced this unceasing monologue with himself was nothing more than the disequilibrium of thought and his inability to gain significant purchase on any object”. For those who have witnessed a relative or friend suffering from dementia, this is a familiar thought and familiar also, perhaps, is the recourse to the phrase “It’s of no consequence to me” which Waiblinger heard repeatedly from the chattering Holderlin.

Playing a piano still gave him some pleasure it seems, beginning in childish simplicity, playing the same theme over and over hundreds of times. On other occasions, almost in spasmodic fits, he’d race across the keyboard, his long, uncut fingernails making an “unpleasant clattering sound”! He would also sing with great pathos – though not in any identifiable language. Holderlin’s family had completely abandoned him in his madness, but Waiblinger records him writing to his mother in the style of a child, “who cannot write in a fully developed way or sustain a thought”.

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Friedrich Holderlin

In fact, Waiblinger suggests that Holderlin’s difficulties lay in mental weakness rather than full-blown insanity. He is “incapable of holding a thought, of giving it clarity, of following it and linking it to another by way of analogy and thus to articulate a distant idea in a regular consistent sequence”. He has another go at describing what he imagines must be going on: “He wishes to affirm something, but since reality [. . .] does not concern him, he refuses it at the same moment, for his spirit is a realm which sustains only fog and what is feigned”. This is partly evident because of Holderlin’s habit (in his madness) of thinking out loud, so Waiblinger believes he can hear a thought being consumed even in the moment of its conception. In the grip of such fluidity and terrifying fog, Holderlin then would shake his head and cry out ‘No, no!’ and begin “firing out words without meaning or any signification, as if his spirit, in a sense overstretched by such a drawn-out thought, could restore itself only by having his mouth issue words which bore no relation to any of it”. Holderlin retreats from his own incoherence into the comfort of sheer random association.

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Will Stone

The results are inevitable for the patient and (again recognisably) yield up a fierce, walled-in, self-involvement. Waiblinger describes a “complete lack of participation in and interest for any events outside himself”, and this, alongside an “incapacity to wish to grasp, recognise, understand, to allow in another individuality other than his own”, means there is no possibility of rational communication with the patient. And such solitude – experienced from the inside – results in such boredom that “he needs to speak to himself”, though lacking the ability to follow one thing with anything coherent, the result is “diabolical confusion” and mere “gibberish”. So it’s with some surprise that we find Waiblinger ending his essay with any thought at all of Holderlin’s recovery. He admits it’s unlikely – but does allow himself (surely consoling himself) with imagining an occasional “momentary restoration”, though even this might only be brief, perhaps no more than a fleeting prelude to the moment of death.

But perhaps such imagined lucid moments are less than consoling to those who spend time observing such distress. Leafing through his papers, Waiblinger says he discovered a quite terrifying phrase. Holderlin at one moment had scrawled down, “Now for the first time I understand humankind, because I dwell far from it and in solitude”. It is almost unbearably moving to imagine such flashes of conscious insight coming to the old poet in the midst of so much mental confusion and perceptual fragmentation. What Waiblinger here describes feels bang up to date and yet must be as old as the hills. Will Stone has done an important job in bringing this essay into English.

The Cool Clean Shirt of Herself – review of Bryony Littlefair’s ‘Giraffe’ (Seren Books, 2017)

It was a great pleasure recently to read for Poetry in Palmer’s Green with several other poets who have various sorts of north London connections: Kaye Lee, Briony Littlefair, Jeremy Page and Marvin Thompson. Kaye is planning her much-anticipated first collection; Jeremy edits The Frogmore Papers and his most recent book is Closing Time from Pindrop Press; Marvin has recently appeared to great acclaim in the Poetry School/Nine Arches book Primers II. Bryony’s first book publication is the 25 page chapbook, Giraffe, recently published by Seren Books, the contents of which formed the winning submission to the Mslexia Poetry Pamphlet Competition 2017. I’ve not seen it noticed enough in the reviews, so I thought I might try to say something about its considerable strengths. Littlefair also blogs here.

Giraffergbforweb

Giraffe, despite its weird title – which becomes clear only at the end of the collection – opens in familiar territory with a speedy, no-nonsense contemporary feel, using the title as part of the opening line: “‘Tara Miller’ // doesn’t have Facebook”. Her neglect of social media is one of Tara’s admired, unconventional aspects as the narrator recounts her (not so long past) school-days encounters with this girl. The narrator’s mother clearly feels Tara is not quite ‘our sort’ and in free verse lines of short, breathless colloquial phrases, the narrator paints a picture of the girl as a bit of a bully, as well as a little bit Byronic, being unpredictable and darkly “interesting”. Without really being aware of what her feelings are, the narrator is drawn to Tara, her “wavy, almost black” hair, her defiance in the face of boys, “her warm, / Wrigley’s Juicy Fruit breath on my neck”. This is a great double-portrait poem and sets up one of Littlefair’s recurrent themes, the tension between venture and routine.

wrigley-s-juicy-fruit-chewing-gumAnother young female narrator deliberately stays at home while her parents (conventionally) go to church on Sundays. She’s a teenage rebel without a cause as “The truth is I’m not sure what I did / those mornings”. The poem is built from a list (one of Littlefair’s favourite forms) of what she did and did not do. Littlefair is almost always good with her figurative language and here the girl is variously an undone shoelace, an open rucksack, a blunt knife. The urge to non-conformity outruns her imagination as to how she might spend her growing independence and there is an interesting tension at the last as her parents return, “whole” having “sung their hallelujahs” while the young girl is till restlessly revising her choice of nail polish, as yet unable to find what she’s after.

The third poem in this very impressive opening to Giraffe is ‘Hallway’. Despite declaring at the outset “I can’t imagine how it must have been”, the young female narrator on this occasion does manage to achieve an insight into something ‘other’ than herself. What she can’t imagine at first is the impact of herself as a new-born on her young mother: “The constant interruptions, / the mess, the uncontrollable outpour of love / like a reflex, a weeping wound”. There follows a curious moment and a great simile. Imagining the years fast-forwarding, the world is compared to “scenery in a video game, pulling itself together / in front of me as I moved through it”. There’s an odd shift here, like a crashed synchromesh, in the switch from the mother’s point of view to the daughter’s but it does prepare for the second half of the poem which indeed is from the daughter’s perspective. The centrifugal, self-absorption of the child is broken at last on returning home from school early and finding her mother at the piano, “small / in her cardigan, eyes closed, somewhere else”. I’m not sure Littlefair’s image – comparing the child at this moment to a “just-plucked violin string” –is original enough for the circumstance, but the poem survives and the child’s expanded imaginative life is signalled as she stands “washed up in the hallway, wondering at her [mother’s] life”.

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Another poem similarly explores a girl’s view of her Grandmother, wondering, in yet another list form, whether the older woman has had any sort of a life beyond the routines of socks and carrots and not gazing into mirrors. The solipsism of the young is a good subject and one Littlefair does well, but she’s as much interested in the other side of the coin: trying to imagine the lives of others. ‘Dear Anne Monroe, Healthcare Assistant’ does this, though the imaginative grain is a bit coarse perhaps. The Assistant’s life – beyond the present moment – is imagined as a mix of poor pay, weary commuting, casual racism and cheese and lettuce sandwiches. This is contrasted to her attention to her patients where she is steady, fierce, calls people sweetheart and is “magnificent”. The sentiment or feeling is right (not something anyone might disagree with) but the poem is sailing very close to caricature.

ClutteredDesk_OfficeI think I find this with some other poems too, though it’s partly because Littlefair is admirably intent on presenting the working world, the world of labour, as routine in contrast to the allure of a more adventurous life. ‘Assignment brief’ presents itself as an old familiar’s introduction to a new girl’s routine office job; the lists and proffered options are funny but they slowly run out of steam. Likewise, the promisingly titled ‘Usually, I’m a different person at this party’ flags latterly. I’m imagining this as narrated by an older version of the girl who half fell in love with Tara Miller. Here, she shadow-boxes the risks  of conventionality by over-insisting on her own sweeping and glamorous life, in the process claiming all sorts of ‘interesting’ aspects of herself: “I only ever have large and sweeping illnesses. / My lymph nodes swell glamorously. I never snuffle”. But the contrasts here are again rather roughly hewn and, in the end, close to cartoonish.

A far more original poem is ‘Maybe this is why women get to live longer’ in which a man-splaining man dominates a watched conversation, the woman “holding her face in different positions / to signify reaction: empathy, humour, gentle and agreeable surprise”. This is acutely observed and the point is well made in the serious-surreal twist of the rhetorical question, “Is there a place / the time goes that women have been / listening to men?” Even better is the imaginative act of the details of the woman now left alone, returned to the “cool clean shirt / of herself”. A really effective line break there, followed by the naturalistic details of her leaving the bathroom door open “as she wees”, then the more disturbing one of her pinching “the skin on her forearm – lightly, / and then harder”. I guess she’s pinching herself awake after the soporific conversational style of the man, but more disturbingly she may be harming herself as a symptom of deeper psychological troubles.

Sylvia Plat_The Bell Jar cover 003.jpegThe latter view is more than a possibility given that Littlefair’s poems also boldly explore the self’s relation with itself. The encounter between self and future self is plainly and humorously told in ‘Visitations from future self’ and it finds the present self in trouble, pleading “I can’t go on / like this, my life a tap that won’t / switch on”. Here, the present self’s cliched and optimistic hopes for a “rain-before-the-rainbow thing” are denigrated and stared down by the future self. ‘Sertraline’ echoes Plath’s The Bell Jar in its evocation of a summer spent on an anti-depressive drug. And ‘Giraffe’ itself is a prose poem (there are 3 prose pieces in the whole book) in which a voice is offering reassurances to someone hoping to “feel better”. In a final list, images of a return to ‘health’ are offered. Particularly good is the idea that suffering will remain a fact but “your sadness will be graspable, roadworthy, have handlebars”. And lastly, “When you feel better, you will not always be happy, but when happiness does come, it will be long-legged, sun-dappled: a giraffe.”

15998895The designation ‘a young poet to watch’ is over-used but on this occasion it needs to be said loudly. Giraffe contains a number of fresh, intriguing and fully-achieved poems. It’s well worth seeking out. I well remember reading and being very impressed by Liz Berry’s 2010 Tall Lighthouse debut chapbook, the patron saint of schoolgirls, and this selection from Bryony Littlefair’s early work runs it close. My review of Liz Berry’s subsequent, prize-winning full collection, Black Country, can be read here.

 

 

The Poems of Mary MacRae

I knew Mary MacRae as a member of a poetry workshop we both attended in north London. She came to writing poetry late and published just two collections – As Birds Do (2007) and (posthumously) Inside the Brightness of Red (2010) both from Second Light Publications. Her poem ‘Jury’ was short-listed for the Forward single poem prize and was re-published in the Forward anthology, Poems of the Decade (2011). That anthology is now set as an A Level text and it was through teaching from it recently that Mary’s work came back to mind.

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Mary died in 2009 at the age of 67. As a writer she was just beginning to hit her stride. Mimi Khalvati praises her as “a poet of the lyric moment in all its facets” and judges Mary’s ten years of work as an “extraordinarily coherent” body of poems. Khalvati goes on: “Because of the natural ease and grace of her diction, it would be easy to overlook Mary’s versatile formal skills, employed in sonnets, syllabics (à la Marianne Moore), numerous stanzaic forms, but nowhere evidenced more forcefully than in her ‘Glose’ poem, inspired by Marilyn Hacker’s examples, in which she pays homage to Alice Oswald, as in a previous glose to Mary Oliver – a trinity of wonderful lyric poets, in whose company Mary, modest but not lacking in ambition, shyly holds her own.”

In 2009/10 many friends and writers contributed pieces in memory of Mary to the magazine Brittle StarMost of this material can now be found here with prose contributions from Jacqueline Gabbitas, Myra Schneider, Lucy Hamilton and Dilys Wood. I wrote a poem at the time (remembering meetings of the poetry workshop in London) and I have more recently revised it more than a little. I’m posting it here alongside the review I wrote of Mary’s posthumous collection with the idea of making the review more easily available and perhaps encouraging others to seek out Mary’s published work.

 

Before the rain arrives

i.m. Mary MacRae

 

Perhaps five or six of us standing there

at the familiar purple door

those afternoons we lost beneath poetry’s

red weather our voices and lines

 

while the genuine thing built unremarked

beyond the window’s diamond panes

till it was time to depart

then our turning back in the familiar porch

 

our repeated goodbyes being called

our uncertain bunching

that coheres and delays until one of us

breaks loose and we are each free to disperse—

 

yet on that day there were raindrops

on the back of a hand on another’s cheek

and though we fiddled with car keys

we fidgeted in trainers and faded jeans

 

we were an ancient chorus for a moment

crying the single syllable

the drawn-out sound of r—a—i—n

because we were weary of weeks of drought

 

and now it came and we saw where it fell

the raindrops beginning

to shrill their high-pitched release

from interlaced shadows

 

from the skirts of clouds

and what none of us knew until we’d seen

one more year was that one of us there

despite our sharp eye for openings

 

and endings would have to face last things

like the white vanishing of panicked doves

into dark thunderheads—

on these more recent afternoons

 

just four or five of us here perhaps

in our minds her shrewd observations

her words urging us closer to listen

for the noise rain makes before the rain arrives

 

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Review:  Mary MacRae, Inside the Brightness of Red (Second Light Publications, 2010), 96pp, £8.95, ISBN 978-0-9546934-8-0

Mary MacRae’s 2007 debut collection was titled As Birds Do. It is true that birds feature variously in that and this, her sadly posthumous new collection, but if we are unaware of the earlier title’s provenance, we might anticipate no more than a delicate, poetic take on the natural world, the kind of thing that fills so many small magazines. But MacRae alludes to the moment in Macbeth, when Lady Macduff and her son contemplate death. The mother asks, “How will you live?” and the son, with a wisdom far beyond his years, replies, “As birds do Mother . . . . With what I get I mean”. MacRae’s poetry is full of such emotionally-charged, vital identifications with natural creatures and, more profoundly, with the sense that what can sustain us in life must be derived from everyday common objects.

book 1

As a title, Inside the Brightness of Red, also flirts a little with poetic affectation, but once inside the book’s covers, it is MacRae’s precise, even astringent, penetration that is so impressive. She reads the world around her and finds spiritual meanings. It is no surprise that R.S. Thomas supplies the epigraph to this new collection: “It is this great absence / that is like a presence, that compels / me to address it without hope / of a reply”. So a poem called ‘Yellow Marsh Iris’ promises to be a naturalist’s observation then startlingly wrong-foots the reader with its opening line (“It’s how I imagine prayer must be”) and proceeds to its seamless business of combining accuracy of observation with an emotional and intellectual narrative. She studies the flower stems crammed into a glass vase:

 

their stiff stems magnified

by water, criss-crossing

white, pale green, green

in a shadowy coolness

 

We are reminded that there is a kind of intensity of observation that succeeds in prising open our relationship with the outer world in such a way that while encountering the Other, we more clearly glimpse ourselves. MacRae concludes her process of “looking and looking” at the flowers that has given rise to the sense that “they seem to hold / all words, all meaning, / and what I’m reading / is a selving, a creation.”

MacRae’s visions are almost always peripheral, fleeting, askance. The unfolding of daffodils – which, in a quite different age, Wordsworth could contemplate steadily and then stow away for future use – here can never be more than something

 

waiting for us somewhere in the wings

like angels,

 

your darting after-image

between the pear-tree

and the brick wall.

(‘Daffodils’)

 

In the same vein, MacRae has Bonnard, paint his mistress, Marthe de Meligny, and declare that his sensibility is triggered by “looking askew”. The visionary moment occurs only when “Glimpsed through the half-open door / or the crack of the hinge-gap” (‘Bonnard to Marthe’) and this collection’s editors (Myra Schneider and Dilys Wood) have drawn it to a close with yet another such moment: “Turning back to look through an open door” the narrator sees an ordinary room “utterly transformed, / drained dry and clear, unweighted” (‘Un-Named’).

book 2It may be that this ability to be sustained by scraps and glimpses, the sense that the self is most fully resolved in a lack of egotism, in its encounter with ordinary things, can diminish some of the sting of mortality. In a poem like ‘White’, MacRae manages to celebrate again the ordinariness of familiar things while at the same time sustaining a contentedness (or at least an absence of fear) at the prospect of the self’s vanishing: “You can disappear in a house where / you feel at home; the rooms are spaces / for day-dreams, maps of an interior / turned inside out”. Rather than Macbeth, it is Hamlet’s resolve to “let be” that comes to mind as this calm, accessible, colourful and wonderfully dignified poem concludes:

 

Let

it all go; soon the door of your room

 

will be locked, leaving only a slight

hint of you still, a ghostly perfume

lingering in the threadbare curtains and sheets.

 

But MacRae’s contemplation of her own death, most likely, was no such safely distanced envisaging. Dying at 67 years old, she’d had only 10 years of writing poetry, but it had evidently become a vessel into which she could pour her experience without ever abandoning herself to artistic ill-discipline. ‘Prayer’ is almost too painful to read. The narrator is emerging from the “thick dark silt” of anaesthetic to hear someone sobbing and a second voice trying to offer comfort. As her befuddled perceptions clear and the poem’s tight triplet form unfolds, the second voice is understood to be saying “’Don’t cry, Mary, / there’s no need to cry’”. The collection’s title poem can bluntly report that “the cancer’s come back” yet artfully balances such devastating news with the landscape of Oare Marsh in Kent where colours “are so spacious, / and have such depth they’re like lighted rooms // we could go into” (‘Inside the Brightness of Red’).

untitledFor MacRae’s interest in and skill with poetic form, we need look no further than the extraordinary glose on a quatrain from Alice Oswald (the earlier collection contained another on lines from Mary Oliver). For most poets, this form is little more than an exhibitionist high-wire act, but MacRae’s poems are moving and complete. Her use of poetic form here, particularly in some of these last poems, reminds me of Tony Harrison’s conviction that its containment “is like a life-support system. It means I feel I can go closer to the fire, deeper into the darkness . . . I know I have this rhythm to carry me to the other side” (Tony Harrison: Critical Anthology, ed. Astley, Bloodaxe Books, 1991, p.43). Appropriately, in ‘Jar’, she contemplates with admiration an object that has “gone through fire, / risen from ashes and bone-shards / to float, nameless, into our air”. Here, the narrator movingly lays aside the wary scepticism of the Thomas epigraph and rests her cheek on the jar’s warmth to “feel its gravity-pull / as if it proved the afterlife of things”.

This inspiring collection contains a short Afterword by Mimi Khalvati who MacRae frequently praised as a critical figure in her work’s development. Khalvati lauds her as “a poet of the lyric moment in all its facets”. She judges MacRae’s ten years work as an “extraordinarily coherent” body of poems, suggesting that, among the likes of Oswald and Oliver, MacRae’s work is “modest but not lacking in ambition”. For me, her two collections certainly exhibit a modesty before the world of nature that is really a genuine humility, allowing both the physical and spiritual worlds to flower in her work. This was her true ambition, pursued in full self-awareness and one that, before her sad leaving, she had triumphantly fulfilled.